Monday, October 25, 2021

Edgar Tsimane’s exile: two years later

From a distance Edgar Tsimane doesn’t look like a man on the run.

Standing by the road outside the Gautrain station in Rosebank, Johannesburg, with his clean-shaven head, brown jacket and blue trousers, he could be a clerk or shop worker bound for the Rosebank Mall.

It is only when he recounts the details of his alleged crime that the truth emerges: he is one of the most wanted men in Botswana.

Tsimane fled the country in September 2014 after his byline appeared on a report in the Sunday Standard that President Ian Khama had been involved in a car accident while driving alone at night,

Two years later he is still living in exile in Pretoria on a three-month renewable permit with the financial support of his paper. Time has not helped to exorcise the trauma and cleared the way for him to go home.

His editor, Outsa Mokone, has been charged with sedition in connection with Tsimane’s offending article and will go on trial in the Lobatse High Court next month.

Why is Tsimane so reluctant to return to a country that for many years had the reputation of being the most prosperous and peaceful in Africa?

He insists it is not because he fears the wrath of the law. He believes that if he did return, he could become a statistic ÔÇô one of the journalists who are killed every year in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines and are included in the annual “impunity index” by the United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I received intelligence information that if I really valued my life, I should seek sanctuary beyond Botswana’s borders,” he explains. “There was suspicion that I had a lot of dirt on the country’s leaders.

“I’ll only go back when there’s a change of government.”

To sceptics who say no journalist has yet been physically harmed in Botswana, Tsimane counters: “I took the warning seriously because it came from someone close to me: my brother, an intelligence officer, alerted me that a number of stories I’d written about the Directorate on Intelligence and Security and finally the one about the President, antagonised the powers that be.”

He cited the case of John Kalafatis, a criminal suspect who was shot dead by intelligence officers from the Botswana Defence Force in 2008 after allegedly being involved in a burglary at a house belonging to Alan West, who had ties with the president.

The four soldiers were convicted of murder by the High Court, only for Khama to pardon them.

Tsimane’s fears are echoed by the associate professor of political science at Concordia university in Montreal, Canada, Amy Poteete. In a document in support of his asylum application, she argues that some individuals who were publicly at odds with Khama or suspected of having embarrassing information about his personal life have suffered physical attacks.

Poteete, who has carried out field research in Botswana over many years, says some individuals have been targeted for political and personal reasons. “Tsimane has strong reasons to believe that he has antagonised President Khama and the DISS [Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services], and his fears should be taken seriously,” she said.

Tsimane’s article, headlined “President hit in car accident while driving alone at night”, alleged that in contravention to traffic laws, the crash was not reported to the police. In addition, he alleged that the other party involved in the accident was not taken to a hospital, although injured, and was given a new vehicle ÔÇô by presidential officials, he says.

This version of events was hotly disputed by attorney-general Athaliah Molokomme, who said the actual crash took place on the morning of August 23 in the village of Dibete, 120km north of Gaborone, and that Khama was neither a driver nor passenger in either vehicle.

Tsimane insists that his sources were credible. “They are ordinary people who could not be suspected of harbouring any motives against the President,” he said in an interview.

“Even when they were questioned by our lawyers to establish the veracity of the story, they were consistent in recounting what happened.”

Tsimane has yet to be charged and is still seeking asylum status in South Africa. He expressed hope that the South Africa’s department of home affairs would consider his application.

“The department has not yet granted me permanent asylum status. They argue that they can send me back because I do not face death penalty ÔÇô basically what they are saying is that it is safe for me to go back to Botswana. But I told them that I’m not sure if my safety is guaranteed,” said Tsimane.

Tsimane’s fears may stem from the death of former opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy president Gomolemo Motswaledi who died in a mysterious car crash in 2014.

While the police issued a statement that their investigations showed that Motswaledi’s death was accidental, opposition parties and other sectors of the society believe he was murdered.

“My fear has to do with physical harm. I do not trust that my safety is guaranteed”.

Asked how the exile has affected his life, Tsimane says that “obviously I miss my family, friends and normal life where I can go to work and chat with my colleagues as we prepare for deadline.” 

Without providing specifics, Tsimane says he keeps himself busy by working on a writing project.

In her letter of support for Tsimane’s asylum application, Poteete emphasised that journalists and media outlets in Botswana viewed as threatening or critical to the government regularly face legal harassment, financial pressures, informal harassment and informal intimidation.

Poteete also cites a complaint by Khama in 2013 about growing slander against high-ranking government officials and announcement that the government would extend financial and legal support to senior officials and cabinet ministers to enable them to sue media outlets for defamation.

Tsimane has also published articles critical of DISS. Before fleeing to South Africa he wrote a story entitled; “DISS turns Botswana into a giant Guantanamo style detention centre ÔÇô claim”.

This alleged that the directorate has seven high security offices with cells and detention chambers in Gaborone alone and plans to set up such additional such the country. It is believed that the story could have further soured the relationship between the intelligence organ and the Standard.

Poteete noted that beyond the threat of legal action, journalists and editors increasingly complain about intimidation and victims of house-break-ins in which labtops and other digital media are stolen.

“Although journalists blame DISS and security agents more generally, some of these incidents might involve private actors. Whoever is responsible for these acts of intimidation, they contribute to a climate of insecurity that gives credence to Mr Tsimane’s fears,” she said.

ÔÇó Khonani Ontebetse is currently doing an internship with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism in Johannesburg.

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